Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2006 December 28 -- Stupid Entertainment

I have never considered people doing stupid things to be entertaining. Apparently other people do, otherwise there wouldn't be stupid movies like Kazakhstan (which I wouldn't waste the time nor money seeing). Maybe that's why I like sci fi: the stories are mostly about smart people doing smart things.

Several of the freebie movies I downloaded are Sherlock Holmes stories from the 40s. Basil Rathbone plays an insightful and generally brilliant Holmes against a bumbling idiot of a Dr.Watson. If it weren't for Holmes, Watson would spoil it for me. Sometimes he does anyway.

This week I finished reading James Harriot's All Creatures Great and Small. Although he was an excellent story teller, Harriot did not varnish the truth. In two of the episodes one of the leading characters made utter fools of themselves in a circumstance where they wanted to make a good impression. Good impressions are important to Harriot. Several times he comments on a particular treatment that has spectacular results in getting a very sick animal back on its feet, which he reports with approval. But when he wanted particularly to impress a certain young lady -- she became his wife in the last chapter -- the circumstances generally worked against him. Only one of those situations was his own fault: he was falling-down drunk. On another occasion his employer and fellow vet botched an opportunity to be appointed official race-track vet, again because of drunkenness. I came away from the book with a feeling of revulsion that completely overwhelmed any delight from reading about his successful cures. And a great deal of gratitude that, but for the grace of God alone, I could have acquired a devastating taste for spirits too.

I am not amused.

2006 December 26 -- Institutional Dishonesty

Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.
Sometimes I feel like that prophet. I live in a culture of endemic dishonesty. There is enough of the evil cancer in my own heart that I recognize it all around me.

With my bank statement this month came an unsigned, undated form letter announcing a change in policy. Obviously nobody at the bank wanted to take credit for it. I can't say I blame them. They are the last bank in town to follow Generally Accepted Accounting Practice by providing their customers with a paper audit trail showing who got paid from their checks, but (if this letter is to be believed) the state has mandated the discontinuance of this protection. This is the same state that voted into their constitution a mandate for taxpayer-funded human cloning (just kill the victims and lie about what is going on). The state motto is "Show me," and you'd better insist on it, because they are all liars.

Banks have wanted to eliminate the processing of cancelled checks for several years, but market pressure -- meaning customer insistence -- prevented them from doing so. So they paid the legislators to "force" them to do it. Welcome to the 21st Century in the country that brought us also Enron and identity theft.

After a while one starts to recognize subtle cues to deviousness. When you get a different explanation every time, it tells you two things: First that none of those explanations are the truth, and secondly, that they have something to hide. I don't know what the banks are trying to hide, but I wish it didn't involve my money.

Oh wait, it doesn't. I have one protection that the Bad Guys didn't consider: God is bigger than the robbers. Besides, it's all God's money, so if it gets stolen, it's His problem, not mine.

I feel better already.

2006 December 25 -- Not Goodwill Toward Men

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

When the wind is right, I can hear the university bell tower chime out their electronic hymn program. Today it's the familiar tune "Hark the herald angels sing, ... Peace on earth, goodwill toward men."

It's a lie.

Most people around here are a little more honest in their definition, "It's a family thing." What they mean by that (but would never actually say), is that this is the one day of the year when it's OK to lock the doors and block out all the rest of the needy world, and concentrate on enjoying the warm fuzzies of yourself and your immediate relatives. Nevermind the name of the holiday, it most assuredly does not include anything to do with Christ nor His reason for existence, possibly except for a harmless baby in a plastic creche.

The church where I was a member for 22 years in California held a church service at 10am Christmas Day, every year. People came. If they wanted to do family things, they arranged their schedule around God's, not the other way around. Here in the part of the country jokingly referred to as "the Bible belt" they cancel church when it interferes with Christmas. I have a stack of Christmas cards from various church members handed out during the past few Sundays, almost all of them with no mention of Christ, not even as "Christmas."

The few Christmas carols you might still hear in the stores during December announce the Reason for the Season: God going out of His way to make a Gift (not a cutsie baby in a manger, but eternal salvation for sinners) available to people who cannot return the favor. But nobody listens to the words any more -- except maybe the atheists, who are properly offended -- as they hurry to buy presents to give to people who are then obligated to return the favor, and fancy ingredients for one of the two grandest meals of the year.

Fine food -- especially at Christmas -- is one of few unnecessary luxuries I have indulged over the years, but recently I find it more important to reorient my diet to accomodate an aging body. The only near family member is a mother who should have gone through the same process years ago. I do not cook and she shouldn't, but not one of the professional food service providers (aka restaurants) in the whole county -- and probably not more than a couple within a hundred miles of here -- are willing to offer a cup of soup to people unable to do it themselves. Even the MickeyDee arches usually shine brightly until midnight every day -- except today, where it has been dark* and cold since early last night. The lunchroom at the county hospital has a single person on duty to serve the skeleton hospital staff, plus a sizable community of retired people with nowhere else to go.

Am I offended for myself? Not really. I can nuke a can of soup and munch on the cookies my sister sends every year. My computer doesn't care what day it is, and doesn't refuse to serve my needs on the Day God served the needs of the human race. But the people who do care about that kind of stuff, who would like a slice of the "goodwill toward men" on their own plate, they are left out in the cold.

I think that sucks. I rather suspect God does too.

* By sunset the arches were lit again. Maybe I was too harsh.

2006 December 23 -- Deconstructing Tradition

The current issue of ChristianityToday has an article by Bradley Nassif, a self-proclaimed evangelical in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, in which he argues almost persuasively for the overlap of evangelical beliefs and what he calls "the Great Tradition". The capstone argument at the center of the article declares, "Whether they are aware of it or not, every time evangelicals pick up their Bibles, they are relying on the historic church's judgment on the colossal issue of canonicity!" I suspect there is some wishful thinking in there.

Richard Dawkins and his colleagues would similarly claim that every time you take a pill or eat some processed food you are relying on Charles Darwin's judgment on the colossal issue of evolution. The truth is, yes, there are some Darwinists in the phramaceutical and food processing industries, and yes, those Darwinists might believe the popular but (in my opinion) unfounded claim about the importance of evolutionary thinking in their particular specialties, but the fact is, chemistry works whether you believe the Darwinian religion or not, and 99.9% of modern chemical science (including food processing, pharmaceuticals, and just about everything else) is based what chemicals do to each other today, not what some armchair theorist 150 years ago thought they might have done millions of years ago. Every science lab in the country can -- and sometimes does -- repeat those reactions to verify the chemical behavior.

The issue of canonicity is not much different from hard science. Yes, the decision we still live with was made 1700 years ago, but we still have the documents they worked with, and more importantly, we can repeat the decision process to verify the result. The Protestant insight from the Reformation -- which Nassif admits the Orthodox generally consider to be a "sideshow" -- is that every believer is responsible for their own faith relationship with God. We further base that faith on the historic documents originally written by eyewitnesses to the person and message of God's Unique Son, not because some fourth-century church council said so, but because those documents themselves stand on their own two feet, first as reliable (by secular standards) history, and then because of that, as a reliable and unique self-validating revelation.

Modern scholars continuously try to drag in some of the contemporary (and often admittedly apocryphal) Gnostic gospels, but anybody who looks at them carefully can readily see why the church councils rejected them. They were bogus then, and they are still bogus today.

As President Ronald Reagan is commonly quoted, "Trust, but verify." We do that in science, and we Protestant evangelicals also do it with our faith. Reliance on "the Great Tradition" is actually minimal.

2006 December 22 -- Amazed That It Works

From time to time, when I consider the awesome complexity of the computer systems we take for granted, I am truly amazed that it all works so well -- or even at all.

My first on-line computer account was CompuServe, and I kept the account active for backup purposes -- one time when an overly ambitious spam filter at my local ISP started blocking my email, it was a useful fallback capability to have -- which I access once every two or three weeks to clean out the spam. CompuServe has no local access numbers in this hillbilly region of the country and all long-distance calls cost me the same, so I have continued to call the same California access number I used when I was there.

A little over a week ago I started getting a "tweedle-dee" telephone intercept that "the long distance carrier you have chosen is having difficulties at this time, please try again later." After several more tries throughout the day, I called to ask when it would be fixed. What a run-around I got! They wanted to tell me the trouble was with PacificBell at the other end, that I should call them. That didn't sound reasonable, but I did, and they reported that it works fine. I also successfully dialed through on my cell phone. I tried a Dial-Around access code and got a different intercept.

Not quite 3 years ago, as soon as I knew the university was firing me, I immediately set up my domain name with a local ISP here and moved my web pages over to it. Links from the university web site gave Google a chance to find and index my new site before the university shut my faculty pages down. Unfortunately, access to the local ISP has been problematic. They said it was the phone company trying to market their own DSL, and the phone company said it was the ISP's fault. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, and bravely hung on until the ISP implemented new spam filters that blocked my email. Then I switched over to the phone company's dial-up. My mother on the same ISP still has access problems, but mine are gone -- until last week.

We went around and around on this problem for five days, until I finally gave up and looked on the CompuServe web site for another access number (which gets through just fine). I guess I got under the phone company's skin when I mentioned their local reputation for impeding access to competitor's services. "That would be illegal," the rep insisted. "Yes, that's why the management doesn't tell the service people like yourself about it," I replied. It seems to me easy enough for their computers to detect (from high bandwidth utilization) that I am connected to a computer modem, and insert an obscure failure mode for that one number (adjacent numbers rang through). I was a little less sure of the conspiracy theory after I asked my sister to try the same number from her Iowa phone; she also got an intercept, the same one I got from the dial-around.

Like I said, I found a work-around and stopped worrying about it. Until this morning.

The phone company called today, three days after I stopped hassling them over it, to say that they had changed the routing, and would I please try it again. My call went right through.

It seems that even though my local phone company offers long-distance service, they really don't have the lines to do it; they just subcontract it out to other carriers. Apparently the same carrier(s) used by the particular Dial-Around I chose, and the same carrier used by the rinky-dink Iowa phone company my sister has. The only difference is that my phone company got a coded error mesage and used it to trigger their own intercept recording. The rep told me that they have several carriers to select from, and when they changed the routing choice, that fixed it.

Somebody has a computer that is blocking calls to that particular number, why I don't know. It might be that the number is an alias for a whole bank of incoming lines to a computer in some other state, and some obscure software bug -- perhaps in PacificBell's computer, more likely in that nameless long-distance carrier's computer -- could not connect up to it. It's not a likely bug to bump into, since those incoming lines are intended to be used by local patrons, not from out of state like me. The other CompuServe number that got me through is still long distance, still out of this phone company's service area, but it's not in California, not PacificBell. Maybe they were already using a different long-distance carrier for those calls.

So many things to go wrong, it's a continuing wonder to me that anything works at all.

2006 December 18 -- Horsepower

The B (for "Budget") movies and spaghetti westerns I download from show their limited effects budget. Everybody rides around on horses, but when the good guys are chasing the bad guys (or the other way around), nobody is ever smart enough to knock out the horses. A horse is a much bigger target for a hard-to-aim six-shooter than its bouncing rider, and without the horse the rider is pretty much helpless. I have noticed this failure over and over, but yesterday I watched a DVD spaghetti western -- well, actually made in Spain, dialog mostly dubbed, or at least not very well synchronized to the speaker's lips -- where the bad guys were smart enough to think of tripping the horses pulling the carriage they wanted to stop. Maybe in Spain they don't have an SPCA to insist that no animals get hurt.

Another difference. Most of the download movies are from the thirties and forties with expired copyrights, while this one was from the nihilistic sixties. In the earlier B&W movies, the good guys always win and ride off into the sunset with the heroine. In this one the hero won against the bad guys, but died in the process. The earliest movies of this genre were called "film noir" for their their bleak/black mood, but the sixties produced almost nothing else. I think some critics blame the Cold War for the pessimism. Another famous title from that era is "They Shoot Horses". I suspect they had to shoot some crippled horses after filming Navajo Joe.

2006 December 15 -- Powerful Like a Dragon

It's easier to see the faults in another person than in oneself. Watching (at a distance) the struggles of a certain person against the health care system, I suddenly realized this morning that I was looking in a mirror.

For 22 years I have used the most powerful and easy-to-use operating system that ever touched the mass market. It was too good. Seeing its declining market share, the vendor killed it off four years ago and replaced it with a rickety old system which I sometimes call "eunuchs" because it seems to be missing a vital organ and cannot perform.

On its old hardware, the MacOS is still faster for most tasks than everything available today, and I still use it almost exclusively, but being a dead system has its limitations -- no viruses or trojans ever attack my computer, but I also cannot access the increasing number of web sites that depend on virus enablers like Ajax. So I am looking around at how to get a secure system on modern hardware. So far no luck, probably for the same reason the Mac died: there's no money in it for the vendors.

I know what I want in a system, and I pretty much know how to make it happen, but like that Rodney Dangerfield in the hospital, I get no respect.

I want a powerful operating system. The Linux proponents claim theirs is a powerful system. We mean different things. I want a system that is powerful like power steering and a 500 horsepower motor in a car: it gets me where I want to go quickly with the least effort on my part. Their system is powerful like a dragon: it takes strong chains and many enchantments to keep it from destroying civilization, and just maybe to persuade it to do something useful. Silly me! I keep saying so, and all those people with an emotional commitment in their dragons quit helping. They don't want to be reminded how foolish their choice really is.

Like the Muslims and the Darwinists, they do not really believe their system is the most powerful. If they did, they would be eager to show it off to skeptics like me, and thus prove me mistaken. Instead they just quit being helpful.

If you make a lot of trouble for the nurses, the nurses stop being helpful. They still do their job, but the troublemaker is not high in their patient priority. If you make trouble for the Linux gurus, they know you cannot find your way around their system without a lot of help, and you won't get it. I know.

2006 December 12 -- Maximizing Revenue

I ran out of science fiction and started reading James Harriot's All Creatures Great and Small. Harriot was an excellent story teller. One of the early chapters describes his feelings going into his first job as an assistant veterinarian in the late 1930s. It seems that much of his trade had been keeping draft horses healthy, but the horses were being displaced by tractors and vet jobs were scarce. He comments on how the vets needed to transition themselves into caring for dogs and cats.

I got to thinking how everybody looks after their own employment situation. From a slight distance I have been watching the health care of a certain elderly person, and the efforts that health care professionals go to in finding ways for a person's health care needs to qualify for Medicare. If the government requirements are met -- for example, to qualify for a class of hospital stay the patient must be on some kind of therapy, and yes, changing the dressings on an infected foot meets that qualification, and so on -- then these care providers have another patient to bill the government for. Whether the patient actually benefits from the therapy or hospital stay is almost irrelevant.

My first full-time job was civil service, and the personel manager in that laboratory was very careful to protect the employment status of everybody working there. You see, civil servant income is determined by the size of your staff (how many people supervised), and the more people who work there, the more personel clerks are needed to support them. Congress and the President can decree spending cuts all they want, but nothing happens because the bottom line is all those people not only preserving their own jobs, but also increasing rank and salary by adding jobs under themselves.

Fast-forward to our present economy, where information technology people are trying various means to preserve their programming jobs, which appear otherwise to be flowing overseas to India. How many upgrades do you really need in your word processor? The problem with the Macintosh, one developer told me, is that everything works too well, so nobody buys upgrades. So Steve Jobs dumped the Mac and switched to unix, which is so lousy that there is plenty of employment to go around. The programmers love it.

It would be fairly easy to get rid of most spam and computer viruses (just eliminate the legacy unix internet interfaces), but look at how many programming and support jobs would disappear if you did! Even Microsoft benefits from security holes in their system software: they get to sell you a huge new "Vista" system. Think of all the programming jobs in Redmond that wouldn't exist today if they did it right the first time.

2006 December 11 -- The Game of Linux

My friend Chris, the game shop owner, sat down with me to teach me the archetypical trading card game, Magic the Gathering. I had downloaded the rules on Wiki, but did not have a chance to read them, which is just as well. I got the full impact of what it is that makes this game so addictive.

After a couple hours of mind-numbing confusion it hit me: This game has all the attractiveness of Linux, and for the exact same reason. It is exceedingly complex, impossible to fully master, with vast opportunities to become one of a tiny priesthood of experts. It confers on its adherents bragging rights -- or as Chris put it, it feeds on human pride.

Pride is one of the classic Seven Deadly Sins.

No wonder I dislike Linux.

2006 December 2 -- Games Q

Just about every business you can be in, there are trade magazines to support it. In the computer business, I regularly read InfoWorld and Dr.Dobbs Journal, and less regularly PCWorld. Some of these magazines are supported entirely by their advertizers, others charge a nominal subscription price to make sure their ads are actually being seen.

I have a friend who runs a small game shop here, and he lent me Games Quarterly, the games business trade. I guess the industry is pretty small, because there was no hint of being a freebie, despite that the magazine was devoted to promoting games stores and the sale of games. At least half the articles explicitly were about why people should play games and patronize their local game store, and there was a large section of vendor-written one-page infomercials for individual game lines. You could tell they were mostly written by the vendors: the by-line on one of them was the stated game designer himself, and every one had the vendor's logo in the corner.

You know the industry -- or at least this magazine -- is small when the publisher's name is also the byline on four articles, and they can't afford a competent proofreader. Many Americans mistake the contraction "it's" (meaning "it is") for the possessive "its", but professional proofreaders correct them (and other obvious misspellings: you can tell when they used a computer spell-checker, because the text is full of misspelled words, every one of them correctly spelled for some other context, like "are" when the context calls for a noun like "area"). Such errors are common in low-budget magazines (I knew of some of them in the Macintosh computer arena), but completely absent from high-circulation trades.

Having designed a game or two, I'm somewhat interested in them myself. But leave it to somebody whose income depends on it to think of a zillion good reasons to play games. Non-electronic games are the specialty of this magazine, and I thought it remarkable that they offer the social interaction of a face-to-face board or role-playing game as a primary benefit. A decade or so ago I myself had observed the value of experimenting with social skills in the low-risk environment of a game; it's gratifying to see that confirmed.

More surprising to me was a notice on the German domination of the industry. They reported on the international games awards, "Spiel des Jahres" (German for "Game of the Year"), with a curious remark on one of the winners, "the only game published first by an American company." Being in an industry dominated by American companies, it's rather jarring to see one that the Germans dominate -- especially since there seems to be so much in common between electronic games (an American turf) and the other kind. Perhaps the overlap is less than I thought. Maybe that's why GQM is so small.

2006 November 30 -- Evangelizing the World

Pastor David Lingo is teaching an adult study class at church on geography as it impacts world missions. Professor David Lingo is the chairman of the Missions Department at a Bible College near here, where he teaches essentially the same material to young missionary wannabes. Earlier in his life, David Lingo was missionary himself, separately to Chile and Columbia. His church sends out more missionaries per capita than any other church in the denomination.

So here I am looking at his maps of the world, showing the percentage of the population in each country that is "Christian" and then Roman Catholic. Some of Latin America (obviously Lingo's specialty) has become secularized, with declining Catholic percentages tracking reduced Christianity as a whole. He does not seem to have maps showing evangelical or Pentecostal proportions, despite that these minorities are growing rapidly in those countries. He is less sure of the substantially lower numbers in the former Soviet Union; clearly the Russian Orthodox church is dominant there, but I think the map did not include Orthodox communions in their "Catholic" figures.

What caught my attention is Lingo's inability to grasp the blurring of lines between evangelicals and other communions like the Catholics and Orthodox. He observed that the Catholics are losing mindshare in Latin America and adopting protestant methods as a way of recapturing the people's attention, but somehow he was unable to grasp that many of the Catholics are themselves becoming evangelicals -- just not in name. The cover story in a recent issue of ChristianityToday describes a similar phenomenon in Russian Orthodox churches: "Finding Jesus in Orthodox Robes."

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, I think Jesus would eschew denominational distinctives entirely. His prayer in the Garden was that "they [we] might be one" as Jesus is One with the Father. Denominations mess that up. This in no way belittles the more important issue, which is: Who is LORD? A century ago the Catholics in Latin America and the Orthodox in Russia were the power structure; they yielded to none other. Until recently the USA has never had that kind of religious dominance, except maybe early in the colonial era, so we have always had to recognize that "our team" did not run the show. I think the atheists have pretty much acquired that position of power in the last half century, and they are starting to bully the other religions the way the Orthodox and Catholics used to do in their own back yards.

The evangelicals -- and to an increasing degree, the Catholics in Latin America and maybe the Orthodox in Russia -- know we have no power of our own, so we rely on God to make things happen. That's the name of the game. Soli Deo Gloria.

2006 November 24 -- Agile vs Agile

When I argue against the flaws on so-called "agile" programming, my opponents prefer rather than logic, to accuse me of being unwilling to adopt new ideas. Ad hominem attacks are easier to argue and harder to defend than sound reason, but in this case they are wrong: Test-first is a recent phenomenon, which I have in principle adopted.

I say "in principle" not because I reject its novelty, but because it turns out to interfere with another "agile" (but not very recent) idea, which is getting something working quickly to give to the stakeholders. The old "waterfall" development methodology required complete design before you started coding, then complete code before you started testing, and so on, so that the results of each phase of development flowed in a single direction down to the next level like water over a waterfall. The agile idea is to do a piece of the requirements and get it into the hands of the "stakeholders" (also known as users) as soon as possible so they can begin to benefit from it without waiting for the whole project to complete. This also allows them to offer meaningful feedback to the developer, so that the next "iteration" will incorporate those improvements incrementally. As I point out elsewhere, incremental development only works where the system being developed is not irreducibly complex.

My current software development project is very large, and giving the final users an incomplete, partially functional version of it would be counter-productive: it would only confirm their (heretofore correct) prejudice that this kind of thing cannot be done by computer. I need to persuade them that my program is different from prior attempts, not convince them that it is just as bad. To do that I need all the parts in place and working. That's what we call irreducible complexity; it is not viable (in the evolutionary sense) at all, at any stage prior to completion.

But I still need to show the program working to the potential stakeholders quickly, in the agile sense. If I cannot drop off any essential components, what can I do to shorten the development cycle? I can trim off all the non-essential features, leaving only the core function and whatever components are necessary to make it work. I can also delete (or rather postpone) the time-consuming exhaustive unit tests. Writing good test code often takes longer than writing the code it tests. That's not bad, but it does slow development down.

Thinking about this recently, I began to realize that test-first methodology is a lot like the disgraced waterfall model. The only difference is that the waterfall in this case is (usually) smaller. When you are dealing with an irreducibly complex system, you need to think through all the interactions of the essential components before you start to code any of them. Then, in the test-first model, you have to write test code for all those interactions before you code anything. In the traditional model you just start to cobble together the parts to see if it works, then incrementally rework the interaction design until it is correct. Then after that works, you throw the whole mess away and write the specifications that the real program will use. The agile model looks similar, except that you keep the mess, and it becomes the final program.

And people wonder why commercial software is so bad.

2006 November 22 -- Timeless

The second week in a row there was no TIME magazine in my mailbox. Not just late (as often happens), but none at all. I pulled an older issue out of the heap and confirmed my suspicions: the subscription had quietly run out. Usually they send me a renewal notice -- not just once, but over and over. This time nothing. After some 45 years as a subscriber, maybe they got tired of me.

The feeling is mutual. More and more I found their ultra-left-wing politics and anti-Christian bigotry annoying. I was reading fewer and fewer of their articles.

Now I read none.

2006 November 13 -- God vs. Science

The cover story in TIME dated today presents a "debate" between evolutionist Richard Dawkins and geneticist Francis Collins. In the same issue, another story lists some of the "great inventions" of 2006, devoting four pages to robots. That gives me an idea:

Let's let the robots debate on Humans vs Electronics. On the side of electronics, we choose the well-known robot R2D2, whose primary function is training other robots in how robot factories came about by self-organization of steel and concrete, which is very important for the robots to know in order to do their various jobs. Arguing in favor of the existence of humans is another cannister robot, F1C5, whose specialty is the wiring of transisters in integrated circuits. F1C5 also believes in the self-organization of robot factories. Neither robot has ever seen a factory being constructed -- of course they were built before production making robots began -- but F1C5 prefers to believe humans were somehow involved, while R2D2 is convinced that there are no such things as humans. Both robots have seen humans on occasion, but R2D2 assumed it was only an anthropoid robot like C3P0 because humans don't exist. C3P0 is a household robot in a human home who works with humans all the time; in the interest of fairness (we wouldn't want the humanists to win the debate!) we decided against asking C3P0 to argue that position. C3P0 has also observed in the human home blueprints for constructing robot factories. Being all electronic, robots don't use marks on paper for communication, so R2D2 and F1C5 don't even know what blueprints are for; this confirms our decision to decide the question of whether humans exist strictly on the basis of electrical circuits.

For a more rational consideration of the same question, see my essay, What's Really Important. On whether factories can self-organize out of steel and concrete, see Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?

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2006 November 9 -- Voice from the Past

It's a curious sensation, hearing the distinctive voice of Raymond Burr in the part of a villain. After cheering Perry Mason on for so many years (including reruns), I found one of his early parts in an old movie downloaded from The Internet Archive. The younger face was vaguely familiar on a much leaner body, but the voice was unmistakable. I had a hard time not hearing him as Perry Mason.

I wonder how many times we inappropriately let previous experience color current perceptions. The Christian idea of forgiveness is supposed to overcome that, but who can do it? I try.

2006 November 8 -- Voting Against Reason

As Winston Churchill famously remarked, democracy is the worst of all possible forms of government, except for everything else that has been tried. Still true.

Curious about the election results and reluctant to go search for a working radio, I googled "election coverage". As usual, Google is completely hopeless. Yahoo is a lot more hassle to use, but at least it found the CNN site. When I had access to a TV in the faculty lounge on campus, I stopped watching CNN news because they were so bigoted. Perhaps their election coverage is also biased, but it's harder to mess up numbers.

They had a page devoted to ballot measures they thought interesting. Every place traditional marriage was on the ballot, it won (Arizona still in doubt as I write this), but every Congressional seat that changed hands (little purple icon ) went to the party most vocally opposed to traditional marriage, with Speaker of the House up for the shrill Congresswoman from SanFrancisco. Go figure. People I have talked to seem to want gridlock in DC. I can't say I blame them.

The State of Misery voted in favor of human cloning. It's a foolish (and dishonest) thing to put into the state constitution, but this election is not about common sense. Now we know that if you pay enough money broadcasting lies to the American people -- or at least the Ozark hillbillies -- they will believe you. The hopeful beneficiary of the pro-cloning amendment reportedly spent more than both Senatorial candidates combined. Fortunately I don't have to live here very much longer (I hope).

Most remarkable to me was the minimum wage item in numerous states. Every one passed. The only people to benefit from raising minimum wage laws are the very rich, who are pretty much immune to inflation and have the resources to invest in anti-inflationary assets. The real losers are everybody on fixed income (including no income, like myself). The people this kind of foolishness is supposed to protect also lose out -- for a while -- because their employers must now hire fewer people to offset the higher costs of each.

In the long run, minimum wage laws are completely futile. Adam Smith's economics recognized that the market self-regulates. The Iron Law of Wages based on his theory reminds us that raising the cost of production can only result in raising the cost of the goods produced, with the result that inflation will cancel out any wage gains. Inflation is already inevitable, it's the only way this country can recover the current astronomical budget deficit. Furthermore, the genocidal (abortion) policies of the last 33 years are reducing the labor base to the point that wages will naturally rise from the resulting shortages. The present election only shows that the voters are innumerate.

Oh well.

2006 November 2 -- Different, Yet So Alike

Last week I held two parallel email conversations, unconnected but curiously related.

Gary is a professing atheist. He thinks of himself as being in the "upper 5%", intellectually superior to the presumed irrational and superstitious theists in the "lower 95%." Like most American atheists, he seems to live by an unexamined value system inherited from his Christian parents or grandparents, and prefers not to dig too deeply into the ethical implications of his stated belief system. But we did not discuss ethics.

Gary wants to believe that "textual criticism" (his words) has all but demolished the historical basis for Christian belief. I suspect he has confused the science of modern textual criticism, which enables us to infer accurately the actual text and date of the original New Testament documents on which most modern translations are based, with the largely discredited 19th century "form criticism," a sort of pseudo-modernist literary speculation uninformed by history or archeology, and now preserved only by nutcakes like the so-called Jesus Seminar and aging academics unable to do quality research. I said so to Gary, and pointed him instead to my essay on the rational basis for Christianity.

Gary correctly recognized that Christian faith can rationally depend on the historicity of miracles, in particular the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He knows he cannot logically rule them out apriori, so he tried to muddle the question with miracles in other belief systems. That's actually a good question, which I addressed in the essay. Besides Joseph Smith's magic spectacles (which I'd already dealt with), Gary pointed me to a Muslim web site which inferred a divine origin for the Qur'an from its consistency with modern science in several areas, such as human embryology and cosmology. Somehow those scientists could not imagine the Prophet copying the 2000-year-older Bible he already knew of for those facts, nor even looking at the carnage of their own brutal acts of war. This is not a violation of the laws of physics in the same way as a Christian miracle; it's not even particularly surprising, except to a modernist conceit. Yes, other religions have miracle stories, but they are qualitatively different from the Christian versions, and most important, they are not generally used to persuade people to convert. The Resurrection is central to the rise and success of Christianity, and Gary could only escape that conclusion by looking the other way.

Alan is a Christian, but he also wants to believe the Biblical texts are unreliable. He opened the dialog with a criticism of my analytical approach to faith. Like Gary's ethics, Alan is apparently unaware of his own faith's firm root in those very texts, preferring to believe that the "holy ghost" is the final source of revelation. That's not an unChristian idea, but unless it is anchored in objective evidences (read: miracles) and documents validated by miracles, there is nothing to keep Alan or one of his colleagues from flying a 747 into a skyscraper because his god told him to. We went round and round on this several times, before he finally admitted, "Today if they followed God ... they would be blasted as fruitcakes and tried as international criminals."

That scares the bejeebers out of the atheists like Gary. It should.

The reverse is also true. Some of the atheists Gary quoted (but was unwilling to fully agree with) are more honest in their ethics; if they were willing to do to Christians what they envision, we would have here the kind of moral chaos, poverty, and civil war that characterizes Sudan and the country that formerly was the atheistic Soviet Union. Fortunately for the rest of us, the atheists are as irrational as the Christians.

2006 October 28 -- The Benefits of Linux

Yes, Virginia, there really is something that Linux does better than the other computer systems here on my desk. I bought the computer from the local integrator, dual-boot "with everything installed and working." Linux booted up, but turned out to be in what I call a "Terri Schiavo coma" -- looks like it's working but totally nonfunctional. I eventually replaced it with Mepis Linux, which I think is the first Linux or unix I ever installed myself that survived the first reboot without substantial help.

I find that I actually boot up Linux every now and then. Most of what I need a computer to do, it does badly or not at all, but last month I started downloading some free movies, and QuickTime (on this Mac) wouldn't play them. Windows Media Player on the PC turned out to not be installed, but double-clicking the movie file in Linux played the movie!

Linux has really crummy connectivity, so I download the files on my Mac, boot up the PC and transfer them over to WinXP, then reboot the PC in Linux -- and go pop some popcorn while waiting for it to boot up -- and watch the movie. Like many unix programs, the player crashes a lot, and the desktop gets confused about the windows that it opened, but mostly that happens before or after, not during the movie. The player controls are limited, but again, that's a function of the business model; the DVD player on the Mac, although sluggish, lets me fast-forward or -reverse like a tape player from the keyboard. Oh well, for the price I paid...

2006 October 18 -- Obama's Intolerance

Few publications publish thoughtful letters expressing an opinion opposing the magazine's own (possibly unstated) politics, and TIME magazine is no exception. I don't expect them to print this one -- certainly not in its entirety -- but I made an effort to be a little less hostile to their left-wing bigotry. I added some explanatory remarks for this posting (the colored text is what I sent them):

Seeing the TIME cover as I carried my mail into the house today, I thought out loud "Obama has a better shot at the White House than Hillary."

Then I read what he wrote: "...our constituency...fears -- rightly no doubt [emphasis mine] -- that the agenda of an assertively Christian nation may not make room for them." This is a common fear among the atheists and other left-wing bigots, which I suppose is why Obama agrees with it.

These are words of intolerance and bigotry, unfounded in history -- it was an assertively Christian nation that made room for them in the first place -- which (by affirming that intolerance with the interjection "rightly no doubt") puts Obama and his "constituency" at odds with what he admits is the vast majority of the American people.

Two pages later he defines "Liberalism" in contrast to that intolerance, and in contrast to what many of the religious people in this country see the "liberals" actually *doing*, which is impinging on our right to believe differently. It is important to distinguish what the "liberals" do from what they think they are doing. They are perfectly happy to let people "believe" any nonsensical ideas they like, so long as they do not act on those ideas. Of course that is not belief at all, or at most belief in the atheist's god of feelings, not the real God. Thus they actually impinge on the freedom of people to actually believe there is a real God Who created everything and makes moral demands on us, such as requiring us to train our children in that same faith without having that freedom subverted in the public schools by the established religion of Darwinism being taught as if it alone is true.

So long as Barack Obama and his colleagues in the "blue states" propagate this hypocrisy, the American people will look for somebody better for President -- somebody who at least lives what he says he believes (I'm thinking here of President Bush: we may not like what he does, but at least it's consistent with what he says). Obama will not be so lucky as to be running against Alan Keyes in a national election. A large part of Obama's essay was devoted to how badly Alan Keyes ran against him for the Senate seat, and Obama's conflict in recognizing that Keyes was a man of firm faith that shaped his whole life, a quality missing in his own life.

Obama's essay ends with him having adopted Christianity as a social religion, but he is still unable to tell his own daughter what happens when we die. That is not the faith of our fathers, and not the faith of the religious people Obama and his colleagues so fear. It's also not the faith of the other religionists he tries to draw in as part of modern America, the Muslims and the Hindus, or even the atheists. Perhaps some day Obama will come to true faith, so he can tell his daughter confidently what happens when we die. Then the rest of us who already know the answer might have reason to trust him at the helm of the country. If Obama doesn't know what he believes, then how can we know what will shape his decisions when the terrorists take out their next target? Americans care about that sort of thing. That's why Bush got elected. It could keep Obama out of the White House.

At least he is asking some of the right questions. Hillary is not.

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2006 October 17 -- Calling the Kettle Black

Last week's TIME magazine came late, so it's still sitting on my stack of things to read with its cover prominently displaying that part of an elephant's anatomy which accurately describes the whole animal used to represent the magazine's favorite politial party. The symbolism is significant: the triumphalistic cover story gleefully rakes the Republican majority over the coals with respect to a moral lapse in an insignificant Congressman that pales in the harsh glare of what their own President did just a decade ago. Of course they neglect to mention that. If they were to think about it, they would probably not be so cheerful. Most American people don't care much about the morals of their political leadership, and while this took down a single Congressman, it didn't seem to harm the guilty President back then, and it probably won't hurt the (not guilty) guy in the White House now either. As usual, TIME's radical left-wing politics has adversely affected their reporting ability. Oh wait, they never were a reliable source of news. What else is new.

2006 October 11 -- Reading the Ads, Round 2

They tell me there are huge pot farms in the underpopulated forests of the Pacific northwest. Occasionally the Feds come in and destroy the crops. I think some of the smoke wafted over Redmond.

This week's InfoWorld features a cover story on the power cost of running ever larger and faster data centers. The ad facing shows these huge batteries labelled with Microsoft products, burning up the energy in some downtown office building. The implicit message: Microsoft servers use more power and require bigger energy budgets.


2006 October 10 -- Evil Spam

There are evil people out there.

I got an email today from confirming my computer order, which they charged to my credit card (PDF invoice attached). The trouble is:

a.  I have never ordered anything from Dell
b.  I have never given any credit card number to any website for online ordering (I phone it in to Amazon, then have it deleted from their database immediately; nobody else gets my business at all)
c.  The laptop computer specified in the email was a Sony, but I would not buy anything from Sony after their rootkit debacle, which they still have not repudiated
d.  Dell would not be selling Sony products, they would sell their own
e.  I don't do PDF (PrettyDarnFoolish), it's a proprietary format supported only on a few platforms by a single vendor with a long history of persecuting -- ah, prosecuting (same thing) -- programmers trying to port their data formats to other platforms
f.  The file wasn't PDF anyway, it was a ".exe" wrapped inside a ".zip" file
g.  This is a Mac; neither ".exe" nor ".zip" are native file formats here
h.  While I have a poorly-done 3rd-party program to open zip files, ".exe" files are completely opaque
i.  The headers on this email showed it didn't come from Dell at all.
Obviously this was a trojan horse spam. I deleted it. I contemplated trying to notify Dell, but decided it was too much hassle. But it was worrisome for a few minutes, while I wondered if I was going to be charged for a computer I didn't order. I wanted to look at that invoice to see if there was more information. Whatever crook sent it out wanted me to feel that way, and obviously hoped I would run his evilware program.

I keep thinking that when I have more time, I will write my own mail client that automatically bounces ("no such address") anything with attachments or in HTML or with web links unless the sender is on my whitelist. That would eliminate 99% of the spam that makes it past whatever robots my ISP uses. I should have so much time.

Much more important at this time is to get a robust firewall on some kind of laptop that (also) boots up WinXP, so I can demo my new software. Such a firewall does not exist commercially on either Windows nor Linux nor OSX, so I must write my own, but getting access to the low-level system I/O code turns out to be more difficult than the proponents of these various systems claim. sigh

Anybody want to sell me a laptop already configured to recompile its own OS kernel? I'm in the market, sometime in the next 3-6 months.

2006 October 2 -- Web 2.0 Is Dead

I think the Internet is passing me by. Or maybe it's just the so-called "new economy" that doesn't admit secure, honest people.

Four years ago, when I knew that I needed a new job in a different city, MapQuest was a wonderful boon in helping me learn about the neighborhoods and housing in the locations where I was interviewing. Earlier this year I went to a wedding out of state, and again MapQuest helped me find the church. Now it no longer displays any maps at all in my browser.

I read about Google before I had web access, and I have been using it ever since I got this computer 7 years ago. It still works for me today (although it fails to find about half of the things I search for, even if they are there), but none of their other services work at all. I read in the trade press that Google's services all depend on AJAX -- the "J" stands for "virus enabler" which I keep turned off in my computer.

The virus/spam/spyware industry pays for the internet. All those nasties gobble up bandwidth, so you and I need to pay for faster access and backbones, plus for anti-virus software to get rid of the nasties, plus for bigger and faster computers to run the anti-virus software, plus for consultants to get rid of the stuff the anti-virus software lets through. I run a 7-year-old computer with no anti-virus add-ons at all. I have never had any kind of virus infection on this computer. There is a reason for that.

Google is reportedly wildly successful. I guess MapQuest is trying to catch up.

Two years ago I helped my mother get a computer to replace the tiny Macintosh laptop whose screen she could no longer read. A computer suitable for my mother does not exist on the market today. The Mac was such a computer, but Apple only sells unix systems now. Unix is not a system for real people. So I had the local system integrator put together a PC for her. I did insist on two security measures: No Internet Explorer, and viruses turned off.

Yesterday she wanted a map of the university town where her granddaughter lives. I suggested MapQuest. Nothing displayed escept  a tiny pseudo-window half off-screen. So my mother cannot use MapQuest either.

Oh well.

At least the Google search engine still works. Today anyway.

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